Many people accept Mindfulness as a treatment for certain medical and psychological disorders, as a tool to deal with stress and even as a strategy for parenting. It is exciting, however, to see the term popping up more frequently as an important practice for children to adopt. In this week’s article, we explore what is Mindfulness and what children will get out of this transformative practice.
What is mindfulness and why should we practise it?
While the term mindfulness might seem like a relatively new buzzword in the Western World, it’s true roots stem from ancient Eastern traditions. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor credited for bringing Mindfulness to the West, defines Mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” At first glance it appears to be a very simple concept, but the truth is our minds are often stuck reliving something that has already happened or anticipating something still to come, that we miss a lot of what is actually happening right now.
There are moments in our lives when we are naturally mindful, for example, staring at a newborn baby and noticing every feature, every movement and every facial expression, or getting lost in work or a creative project where you are completely focused on that one task. While we may never be present 100 per cent of the time, when we consciously practise being mindful, we are able to experience the present moment’s awareness more frequently.
Scientific studies have shown that when we practise being mindful, we can reduce stress, improve anxiety and depression, better regulate our emotions, improve focus and concentration and improve sleep. In addition, mindfulness can also enhance our physical health by lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain and improving gastro-intestinal issues. When we are able to quiet down the constant chatter in our minds, we experience life in a completely different way and feel more joy and connectedness to those around us.
Benefits of practising with children
Since habits we develop early in life often continue in our adult years, it is extremely beneficial to start planting the seeds of mindfulness at a young age. Mindfulness practises are also particularly powerful for children because their brains are still developing. In fact, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making and moderating social behaviour, is not fully developed until around 25 years of age.
While we often think that children “have it easy” because they are yet to face the realities of financial problems, work-related stress and many of the other challenges we face as adults, in their little worlds they are dealing with their own pressures. Think of the toddler who gets completely overwhelmed trying to tie his shoelaces, or the school-aged child dealing with mean children at school or the teenager navigating the changes brought about by puberty. Even though these experiences are all part of life, it creates a certain level of angst for children and mindfulness can be an important tool to help them cope with these challenges.
Some of the specific benefits of practising mindfulness with children include:
• Increased focus and concentration and ability to block out distractions.
• Helps them to become aware of their emotions and understand how these emotions manifest in their physical bodies.
• Better impulse control as they learn how to pause and choose their response rather than their automatic reactions.
• Improved cognitive functions in the brain and enhanced memory
• Provides tools to draw on when dealing with a challenging situation
• Helps to lower anxiety and stress by triggering the relaxation response in the body and cultivating an acceptance of things as they are
• Increased compassion and empathy for themselves and others.
When I first started learning the principles of Mindfulness many years ago, I wondered what my life would have been like if I had learned these valuable principles as a child. While I cannot relive the past, it is such a pleasure to have the privilege to share these tools with both children and adults. With everything else we try to teach our children, the best way is to model mindfulness through your own actions and behaviours.
Director, Mindful KITES: Knowing,
Inspiring, Thinking, Empowering Students